Category Archives: x11

Chasing the Cicada

The text I’ve chosen has been one of my favorite long-form articles for a while, in part because I don’t think it wouldn’t work nearly as well as a print narrative.

Chasing the Cicada,” an article from magazine Mentalfloss, follows how one Jeff Kinkle got caught up in a mysterious trail of online clues likely planted by the NSA or the amorphous hacker entity, Anonymous, in order to recruit and suss out talented hackers and codebreakers.

The subject matter itself is interesting, and makes an extremely compelling story.   However, what draws me to read this particular text over and over again is how well the author, Jed Lipinski, crafts the narrative, as well as how appropriate it is to read it online as opposed to in print.

The article flows between sections describing Kinkle’s descent into the underworld of the internet and sections providing background on the different elements of his deep web journey- 4chan, /b/, Tor, Anonymous, and reddit.  While it’s not considered particularly good form to constantly interrupt a narrative with large chunks of background information, the author showcases brief yet informative glimpses into the online life of these internet entities (internetities?  New word, anyone?) and how they are involved in Kinkle’s story.  Although it’s not particularly linear, the story reads like instructions for a recipe- keep adding information and resources to the argument until it all comes together and makes a structured, fascinating article.

When I first read this story several months ago, I was also very impressed with the breadth of research.  While not a formally researched essay, the author draws on sources as varied as Gawker, Carnegie Mellon reports, interviews, and memes and message boards themselves.  He also includes some of the actual coded images that were part of the breadcrumbs that Kinkle followed to the next clue.

Ducks make everything, even deep web hacking trails, more fun.

There’s something particularly meta and through-provoking about reading an article on Anonymous and the deep web on the internet.  It also brings to mind how the web itself, with all of its layers, functions as a constantly evolving digital text.  Lipinsk spends a fair amount of time describing how Kinkle and other 4chan commenters following the trail worked together within comment threads to track and solve clues.  As a sort of open-source conversation, the problem-solving exercise allowed for multiple voices to contribute to the development and construction of the code-breaking exercise.

This is one of the articles I send people who want recommendations for excellent long-form feature stories.  I know it’s not technically about writing and creating texts, but I think that it’s a great example of how texts about the internet can exist online, and are all the stronger for doing so.

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X-Ray Vision and Distant Reading

I used to be stubbornly resistant to the idea of reading books on screen, for all of the obvious (though perhaps frivolous) reasons: I like the feel of a book in my hands—solid, material; I treat my books roughly and like how their physical shape reflects my reading experience; I like the satisfaction of actually feeling how many pages I’ve read and how many I have to go; I even usually like the smell of a book. But after just one semester of grad school, dragging my various and numerous books to, from and across campus, it became clear to me that I might actually find e-books more useful in an academic context for their sheer convenience (weight, transportability, storage, etc.).

So about five months ago, I got an iPad mini and hopped on board the Kindle train—and I really haven’t looked back. In addition to my initial reasons, I have found new causes to love e-books: their organized and searchable system for storing highlighting and annotations; the searchability of the text itself; the easy, deft movement between text and endnotes; the built-in dictionary and even Google/Wikipedia searches. I found my reading experiences to be fundamentally altered by these conveniences, but rather than flattening them out (as I might once have argued they would), I found that these affordances of the e-book make my reading experiences much, much richer than they would have otherwise been. The likelihood of my looking up a word of whose meaning I was unsure, of looking up a geographical location or historical event—I’m somewhat ashamed to say it was much slimmer when I had a print book in my hands and my computer was across the room. While you might expect these quick movements within an e-book (between internal and external text) to be distracting, I find them much less disruptive than hauling out my computer to look something up every time I want more information.

For these reasons, I’ve come to trust and rely on my Kindle app. That is, until this weekend, when I was reading my Kindle version of Tana French’s brilliant 2007 Irish murder mystery In the Woods for Dr. Siobhan Carroll’s course on the Transatlantic Gothic. I was only about a quarter of the way through the book when I discovered, quite by accident, a Kindle feature I’d never encountered before called “X-Ray.” For some reason or another, I had accidentally highlighted a character’s name—and what popped up looked something like this:

XRay Kindle Screenshot

Notice the blue and white bar at the bottom—which, it became immediately clear, represents the frequency and distribution of the character’s name in the book. Here’s the kicker: to avoid spoilers for others in Transatlantic Gothic (and anyone else who might want to read French’s excellent novel!), I used the main character’s name in the screenshot example above. But what I actually highlighted at that moment was a very minor character’s name. I instantly saw (and subsequently couldn’t un-see) the plot of the novel through that blue and white bar, because the very minor character’s name drops out of the book for almost the entire middle section, and then suddenly reappears in full force about ¾ of the way through the novel. This novel is a whodunnit for god’s sake! Fortunately, it’s also quite a bit more than just a whodunnit, or I suppose the rest wouldn’t have been worth reading. But I utterly loathe having plots ruined for me.

It turns out that X-Ray “lets you explore the ‘bones of a book’” by defining and mapping out not only character names, but various terms as well (such as locations, historical figures, and just about anything else you can find in an encyclopedia). From what I can tell, X-Ray operates through a data-collecting and –analyzing robot, but also through Amazon’s Shelfari, which describes itself as “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.”

What this immediately made me think of was Franco Moretti’s fascinating, brilliant and also (I find) rather disturbing manifesto for “distant reading.” While the original manifesto itself was written in 2000, doesn’t explicitly mention computers or the internet, and was positioned ostensibly as a solution for making meaning of the vast, non-canonical quantities of world literature, it had prescient resonances for what it means to read in a digital age. “Distant reading” is almost precisely the opposite of “close reading”—it assumes that “distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems” (Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature”). In other words, Moretti deals in data. As he put it in his 1998 Atlas of the European Novel, his methodology is straightforward, if not simple: ““you select a textual feature… find the data, put them on paper – and then you look at the map” (13). The shapes and patterns that result from such data, which often cut across multiple texts and authors, become the new text subject to analysis. Here’s an example of what such work might look like, from his 2005 Graphs, Maps, Trees:

Moretti - Protagonists of Parisian novels

Of course, in the digital age these patterns no longer need to be “put on paper,” nor are we limited to analyzing only the data we painstakingly mine for ourselves. In the fourteen years since the publication of his “distant reading” manifesto, Moretti has since been avidly pursuing this unorthodox strain of literary studies, “importing,” as Wikipedia puts it, “not without controversy, quantitative methods from the social sciences into domains that have traditionally belonged to the humanities.” His work at the Stanford Literary Lab reflects his inevitable plunge into the digital, toward a new field they call “computational criticism.” We now have an array of technological tools that can amass data from texts, and even perform pretty sophisticated analyses. Because of the internet we can rely on the collective labor of many individuals to produce this information, as digital spaces like Shelfari demonstrate. The emergence of such spaces makes almost eerily prophetic Moretti’s 2000 claim that “literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become ‘second hand’: a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading” (“Conjectures”). The data and patterns emerging from collective work on texts between humans and computers—like the bar-maps and definitions I accidentally encountered on X-Ray, much to my chagrin—bear a strong resemblance to Moretti’s practice of “distant reading.” (Though it is interesting to note the somewhat contradictory controlling metaphors of each: zooming out vs. x-ray vision.)

Altogether, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this digital-age movement toward data in reading and writing. Of course the sense of loss, on one level, is profound. Moretti is fairly indifferent toward such loss, observing that

If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (“Conjectures”)

I’m not so indifferent. Like most of us, I suspect, I place a deep value on the individual process of reading a single text. To some extent, the linked external data can enhance that reading experience. But when it moves toward displacing the reading experience, as it very nearly did in my initial encounter with X-Ray, I profoundly resent it. Moretti has done some really cool, interesting work with his methods. But I wonder how far we really want to take distant reading as a real practice. And why, after all, do programs like X-Ray exist? What do we stand to gain, as individual readers and collectively, from such information?

Reshaping Writing, Reshaping Self or: Just Calm Down, Katie

 

you may not be able to do this with the internet but you can put this on the internet

I love ‘traditional’ (read: 19th century) novels. In my most angsty teenage years or the most alienating months at my first “real” job, my best days were gobbled up by absorption in Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy, and Doyle. I’ve also broadened my reading horizons to include other living authors, too, such as Zadie Smith, Muriel Barbery, and Alice Munroe, most recently [shameless name-dropping!]. But despite this broadening, just pass me Anna Karenina and leave me alone to read in peace (gosh-darn-it!). I don’t like technology-novels or Twitter novels. Those are not novels.

And then there are two inescapable, contrary things to my love of “traditional” reading materials: (1) my uber-accepting stance on open media and (2) my digital essay (a WRITING project). In these two things, I advocate: free materials! Open education! Unhampered access to learning! Embracing all the digital things but think about how to do them well! Abandon paper publishing for the present and future! Write and communicate using online mediums and language!

But books.

But Dickens.

But the deckled-edged novel in bed with tea all day.

NOT Tweetbooks. NO. THOSE ARE NOT NOVELS.

I decided to learn more about the way that authoring texts (literary, in this case) is changing since I recognized that I needed to come to some sort of conclusion about what I really thought about this subject before I could both address the potential arguments against my project and stare my ideologies in the face. I came across Alex Clark’s article in the NewStatesman (online, appropriately), “Anxiety of influence: How Facebook and Twitter are Reshaping the Novel,” which promised to be the sort of thought-piece I needed.

Clark brilliantly takes on those among us who fear that the Twitter-novel might replace the ‘real’ novel (really, a 19th century construction) by addressing the issue of the “essential self.” This self is influenced by the digital world that we live in, and it is what makes us both accept new technologies and fear the erasure of old technologies. This essential self is troubling:

“We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another.”

Clark continues: “It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like.”  Instead of defining these terms, Clark determines three ‘poles’ which comprise interactions in the digital world that novelists are trying to trace: “ourselves, our society, our language.” Instead of panicking and wondering what we’ve ‘lost’ or how we’ve ‘lost’ it—which, it seems, are always worries connected to our understanding of how the self develops and maintains identity—Clark asks us to consider: “What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?” (emphasis is mine).

Perhaps, Clark contends, those who are worried about this infiltration of digital technology into the novel and loss of the old forms are worried instead about technology just becoming another gimmick or obvious plug in the pages that we know and love. Perhaps we will just mold the old novel-forms to fit some new or flashy ideas. This is not the case, though. Instead, the novel is being re-formed.

Clark goes on to list several ways that technology becomes an actress or plot-point in novels, how writing online has created a new language, and how the structures of the novel have adapted to platforms like Twitter. These things are scary, Clark says, but scary things are not always bad things. Novelists have always (are always already) created within these three poles as they create the thing that we think of as novel. Novel is reshaping culture at the same time as it is being reshaped by culture:

“Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.”

We’re not losing ourselves (or our strange sense of selfness) in this changing novel. People still write these things, people still read these things, ideas are still created and distributed, communities still exist around them, lives are still changed. It’s okay to love these old forms, too, but just to claim that they are the best way of creating novels and disseminating ideologies is reacting in fear.

Instead, it’s better to consider “how” and “why” writing is changing/is changed by the digital world. Let’s also consider what kind of place we—and our projects—can take in this digital space, which will also require our willingness to change the way that we think about reading and writing and creating practices.

The Digital Potential of Bookmarks in Further Discussions

Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Read by Jason Merkoski is one of the primary resources of my digital essay. Merkoski introduces himself as “Amazon’s first technology evangelist [who] helped invent technology used in today’s ebooks and […] lunched the first three kindle devices.” As a big fan of books in both non-digital and digital form, and as a technician of the field,  Merkoski re-tells the story of ebook evolution, or revolution, while considering and analyzing human confusions, resentments and disbeliefs in that process. At the end of each chapter, Merkoski brings up a related topic discussion, in the form of an online survey, and invites his readers to share their ideas, memories or critical views on twitter or Facebook with other readers of the same chapter. He calls these textual interludes as “bookmarks” and introduces them as bellow:

The “bookmark” at the end of each chapter takes a look at an element of print books we have come to love or loathe and how it will be affected, transformed, or eliminated by the move or ebooks. As used here, the term “bookmark” is a kind of  visual pun. Not only does it refer to an artifact from traditional print books, but  each “bookmark” also is a small interlude that describes the ways books have indelibly marked our lives and our culture of reading.(xvii)

He uses the book’s website as the basic reference:  http://www.jasonmerkoski.com/ and for each Bookmark there is a link like http://www.jasonmerkoski.com/eb/1.html (this is the first bookmark where you can choose Facebook or Twitter to carry the online conversation through.) There are 22 bookmarks in the book and 22 topics for online discussion. Interestingly enough, there is no chapter numbering in this book, and chapters are separated just by Bookmarks. As I read the printed version of Burning the Book rather than the Kindle edition, I was entertained by seeing the possibility of following what I was reading on a page, by joining an instant online community focused on the same topic, knowing where to stop by for each specific chapter. Although online discussions seem to be fragmented and not as categorized as the Bookmarks, I think the author has designed an experimental activity through which he might gather feedback, chapter by chapter, for further enquiries on the same subject. Moreover, I find the direction and pattern of these bookmarks appropriate for various undergraduate activities in our writing classes. We can ask our students to read one specific chapter of this book and then take part in its online activity. Students can also use their experience of an online conversation with other readers and also the author to compose an essay. As an example, look at the last paragraph of Bookmark 11:

Each family has its own story, often partly inscribed in the pages of its books. Does your family have a book with an important inscription? A family bible? Is a chapter of your own history preserved between the brittle pages of an old book?  Care to share your story?

http://www.jasonmerkoski.com/eb/11.html

Bookmark 12 and Bookmark 17 call for sharing personal reflections upon bookstores and book covers. There are also predictive activities which challenge the reader’s imagination; for example bookmark 19 ends with questions about the future of “three major digital media retailers Apple, Amazon and Google […]”  with a “fast-forward a hundred years” assumption. Although these bookmarks do not lead the reader to any new digital space, as they end in either Facebook or Twitter, the experience could be different specifically for an undergraduate student who enjoys posting on Facebook better than taking part in class discussions. However, I find Merkoski’s readers more engaged with Twitter option than Facebook. He also sends a digital autograph to his joined readers, which could be a new topic in digital versus non-digital debates in a writing session. We can even ask our students to read specific number of other readers’ comments and respond to them or analyze them. The digital generation gap, about which I’m writing my digital essay, might come up as a new topic for further discussions, after getting into these bookmarks.

 

 

Will Self’s “Kafka’s Wound”

I wish that something had miraculously shown up in my inbox or Twitter feed that suited the category of “new digital writing.” Alas, nothing did. Instead, I located a digital essay by Will Self titled “Kafka’s Wound.” [Edited to add that I had forgotten that this had been one of the first examples Joe had offered of digital work.  :

falling ]

In this longform (8200 word) essay, Sef brings his reading of Kafka to life through a web of associations.

I do not think it is necessary to read the entire text of his essay to get a feel for the work he is doing of editorial, historical, and creative connotation. Interestingly, the London Review of Books sponsored this project, which took 14 weeks and many people’s labor to make. The explanation for the essay states that the goal was to use “digital technology to loosen and enhance the structure of the essay,” and it certainly does that. Although Self wrote the main body of the essay, “much of the additional content was researched or created by over 70 others,” presented in various forms including music, digital media, videos, photography, and drama.

Screenshot 2014-05-06 16.51.34

The user interface permits readers to open and close bubbles to the right side of the essay. There is also a freeform navigation web menu at the top of the page for readers who want to browse through the the material that way. I found that more compelling than reading the entire essay straight through. The various supplemental–and yet that’s not quite the right word–elements of the digital essay actually served as entry points into Self’s rather heavy prose.

The very reason I respect this piece of work–the quality and expansiveness of it–are the very reasons I also nearly chose something else to share here. It is really overwhelming to see such a massive undertaking so beautifully pulled off. Overwhelming in an admiration sort of way. Also in a holy-smokes-I-couldn’t-ever-create-something-of-that-scale way.

 

“Wired Love”: How to Stop Worrying and Embrace Digital Technology

Like other previous posters, I am also discussing several texts, but my primary focus is Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (2013).

la-ca-jc-smarter-than-you-think-20130910

Thompson is a technology journalist who writes for Wired, the New York Times, and other online periodicals, and I’ve enjoyed his exuberant and sharp commentary in those venues for a while. So, when his book came out last fall, I was interested, particularly since it seems a pretty clear response to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011), another excellent meditation on writing, reading, and thinking in a digital age. I read Carr’s book and assigned the Atlantic essay from which it sprang to my very first ENGL 110 class all the way back in Spring 2011. Carr is quite distrustful of how digital technology might be changing the ways in which human brains function and of the potential that Google is making us “stupid.” Thompson, on the other hand, takes almost exactly the opposite approach and argues that our digital tools are actually working “in tandem” with our brains to help us function better, naturally (no HAL/Dave show-downs here):

“…these tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.” (6)

Thompson aims to examine technology’s relationship to “what is observably happening in the world around us” (15) rather than arguing for the “rewiring” of the brain, as Carr does (Thompson 13). With this mission statement, he goes on to cover topics including memory and knowledge management, reading habits, how we search for and digest information, and the “ambient awareness” (211) that characterizes our online social networks, all of which hint at new intelligences and literacies cultivated exclusively by our interactions with digital tools.

Thompson’s weblog, Collision Detection, is also worth a visit. It includes more informal meditations than either his articles or his book, focusing particularly on comparing what we think of as “new” with things that have actually been around in other forms for a while. A recent(ish) post I especially loved was on a late-nineteenth century novel called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which follows a telegraph operator and her on-wire dalliance with a mysterious fellow operator. Thompson calls it “A tale of catfishing, OK Cupid, and sexting … from 1880” (scandalous!—though not dissimilar to the telegraph/internet connection Tom Standage has also commented on in his 1998 book, The Victorian Internet). Thompson concludes, “This book is 130 years old, but it could have been written last week,” perhaps fulfilling Wired Love’s own subtitle, “‘The old, old story”—in a new, new way.”

Morse telegraph operator tap truth2

All that’s to say, check out Thompson—his work is a nice complement to many of the texts we have been reading and issues we have been discussing. For me in particular, Thompson’s book offered additional ways to think about how I might discuss users’ interactions with online archives in my digital essay for this class.

Distributed Communities and Classrooms: Reading Twitter, Teaching on the Internet

I’m going to break the rules a little here and talk about two “texts”–one is a conventional print book about digital writing, and another is a series of videos that help to showcase (I think) the wonderful possibilities of what I call Internet Pedagogy (as in, using the internet to teach) and how to compose it.

First, the scholarly, corporeal text.

Michele Zappavigna’s Discourse of Twitter and Social Media

81Rt2P-OV3LZappavigna’s book, in essence, sets itself out as a truly conscientious linguistic analysis of Twitter (and other high-visiblity, searchable social networks), and it’s mission is to argue for the importance of searchability and ambient affiliation (namely, how distributed communities of discourse are created by indirect reference) on the internet. Zappavigna, in other words, is trying to demonstrate that searchability and ambient affiliation are the key markers of this discourse environment, and that things like hashtags, memes, and typographic tendencies all try to serve these ends (whether the user is fully aware of this or not).

What makes this study refreshing is Zappavigna’s admission that this is a difficult, elusive, and just logistically difficult corpus to analyze, and that we cannot analyze it using only one method–it’s too big, and too complex, and changes too quickly. Incompleteness is part of the game (and indeed, Zappavigna tends to overlook things like one-off hashtags and misreads a few memes, which helped to motivate my own project). The work, as a whole, adopts a “social semotic perspective” (11), meaning it concentrates on real-time group meaning-making and–perhaps uniquely–direct interpersonal meaning-making where the two people negotating meaning are temporally and spatially distant.

In one frustrating moment, on page 101, Zappavigna lets me down, though. She asserts that “Internet memes are depolyed for social bonding rather than sharing information,” which for me is an uncareful distinction growing out of the social semiotic framework of the book. Social bonding is so important to this linguistic/sociological pursuit that Zappavigna neglects to realize that social bonding *only occurs* when information is exchanged in meaningful ways (what these meaningful ways are, of course, must be negotiated). This, in part, became the impetus for my project–to resurrect the idea that memes aren’t just membership badges without an inherent message, but they are ways of saying something so that the group will understand, a highly literate internet shorthand. It’s not just a performance of membership, it’s speaking to the membership.

Of course, just by taking on the language of Twitter as a scholarly subject and asserting that it has real, useful purposes and underlying structures, Zappavigna has already done something remarkable–she’s managed to accumulate a corpus of tweets and show how they aren’t just nonsense or fluff, but rule-bound discourse with its own grammar and conventions, that reaches out for new personal connections. And that’s a pretty big deal.

CrashCourse Youtube Series (or, How to Do Teaching on the Internet So Well We Might as Well Not Show Up Tomorrow)

Crash CourseIf you don’t know about the Youtube channel CrashCourse, by John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars young-adult-novelist fame) and his brother Hank, what have you been doing?

In essence, the channel is arranged into series, usually of several dozen episodes, that basically teach a high-school-plus to undergraduate-level course in a particular general topic. Written by a team of academics and the Green Brothers (the VlogBrothers), they use detailed visuals, a bit of humor, and a lecture-style teaching method to quickly and effectively train viewers in the topic. Each episode is, in essence, a multimodal lecture-essay, with a clear topic, audio, visuals, and the comforting presence of a person in a tweed jacket (usually) talking to your eyes like you’re in the room.

They are almost worryingly effective at teaching (if John Green ever does a CrashCourse series in freshman composition, we will all be fired), and in the case of History and Literature, are unafraid of discussing, dissecting, and identifying their theoretical frameworks, giving teachers a good model of how to talk about this in real-life classes, too. Importantly, these lecture-essays reinforce just how profoundly important visuals are on the internet in order to get your point across, and how important it still is to have (or simulate having) a real, embodied person talking to you. They know just how far you can go with the affordances of the web for teaching, without getting so wrapped up in the internet’s possibilities that they subvert their pedagogical aims.

In essence, as a pedagogical practice on the internet, they remind us just how important it is to engage with our students across several modes simultaneously in order to make the most of our time, but also remind us that a person is still required, and that there’s something to the meatspace classroom. As someone who’s taken online courses with a teacher and zero multimodality, I can say, unless online pedagogy starts to evolve, most institutions are doing a grievous disservice to its online pupils. CrashCourse gives us a model for how to teach people things on the internet, and what sort of tone is appropriate to that situation.

Really, in essence, without CrashCourse, it might have been a lot harder to remember the importance of visuals in my own project, or to understand what sort of tone internet teaching should take in order to stick in the memory of the user. CrashCourse understands the fine line between a boring Wikipedia article and a super-internetty, directionless multimodal mess with no pedagogical aim, and they know how to make a video without it sounding like someone taped lecture slides.

(And I’m not just saying that because John Green stole my lecture cadence, either.)